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US grants $100m for driverless car research days after Uber death in Arizona

The US government has unveiled a massive $1.3tn spending bill which includes $100m for a highly automated “vehicle research and development” program just days after an Uber driverless vehicle hit and killed a woman in Phoenix.

The new funding includes $60m for grants “to fund demonstration projects that test the feasibility and safety” of self-driving vehicles, the spending agreement said.

The announcement comes after a video of a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber on Sunday night suggests the pedestrian who was killed should have been within range of the car's laser and radar sensors. 

The ride-sharing service grounded its entire test fleet and the tragedy has thrown into question when Congress might approve legislation to ease legal hurdles to the deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Authorities investigating the crash in a Phoenix suburb released video of the Uber SUV that cuts out just before the woman was struck as she walked from a darkened area onto a street.

The second part of the video shows the reaction of the driver filmed from inside the car.

The lights on the SUV did not illuminate 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg until a second or two before impact, raising questions about whether the vehicle could have, or should have, stopped in time.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir has said the SUV would probably not be found at fault, but two experts who viewed the video said the SUV’s sensors should have spotted the 49-year-old woman and her bicycle in time to brake.

Reviewing the video footage, the experts concluded that it appears there was enough time and distance to avoid the collision.

The new US government funding will go towards automated vehicle proving grounds, local governments or academic institutions, but not to private companies. It includes $38m for US agencies to conduct research into self-driving cars, including cyber-security issues.

The US Transportation Department is “expected to prioritise research topics that fill gaps in research being conducted by the private sector” and “have the strongest potential to advance the safe deployment” of advanced vehicles.

Congress is also setting aside up to $1.5m to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the impact of self-driving vehicles on US employment, including the potential pace of job losses among truck, taxi and other commercial drivers, as well as the potential safety risks surrounding commercial autonomous vehicles.

Companies including Alphabet’s self-driving car Waymo unit, General Motors, Ford, Tesla and others are all aggressively pursuing automated-vehicle technologies.

In January this year, GM asked the US government to allow a fully autonomous car - one without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator pedal - to enter the automaker’s first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019.

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